Dejan Kozul in Belgrade -
On May 11, Serbia's powerful deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, received the "2012 Best European Award" presented by the Serbian NGO, First European House. Who would have thought that one day this former secretary-general of the Serbian Radical Party and once a potential successor to its leader, ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, could receive such an award? Perhaps, only himself.
Vucic was only 23 when he joined the Serbian Radical Party. It was in 1993, when the dream of creating a "Greater Serbia", something he shared, still had military support of the Yugoslav Army in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Five years later, at only 28 years old, just before the Nato bombing, Vucic became the minister of information in the government of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic. He was responsible for the so-called "Vucic Law", the extremely repressive Law on Information that the regime used in a ruthless attack against the independent media. The murdered Serbian journalist and newspaper publisher Slavko Curuvija had to shut down his publications because of the draconian financial penalties imposed on it. Vucic's ministry branded Curuvija a national traitor and a foreign spy, comments which many argue were instrumental in his murder.
After the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, Vucic was active as the Radical's secretary-general, covering for Vojislav Seselj who was now languishing in a prison cell in The Hague. He was also active in the protests against arresting suspected war criminal Radovan Karadzic, putting up fake street signs in Belgrade, renaming a Zoran Djindjic Boulevard after the fugitive general Ratko Mladic.
The start of his remarkable transformation took place in 2008, just a year after posting those fake streets signs. The Radicals' former leader Seselj may have testified only on June 10 at the trial of alleged war criminal Rodavan Karadzic at the Hague Tribunal that he still wants to create a "Greater Serbia", but for Vucic that dream died when he and Seselj's deputy in the Radicals, Tomislav Nikolic, decided to break away to form a new party, the Serbian Progressive Party. Nikolic eventually went on to win the presidency in 2012, while Vucic assumed the leadership of the Progressives, which became the largest party in parliament following the parliamentary elections in the same year.
Hard to take
Paradoxically, the forming of the Progressives was perhaps one of the most visible results of the October 5 revolution that ousted Milosevic. Vladimir Pavicevic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science, wrote in an article for Dvogled that, "Aleksandar Vucic understands that today, in the new Serbia, it is impossible to rule as a sultan or by using wartime politics, because October 5 was the day which ended this kind of rule."
Driven by huge ambitions and aware of the difficulty that his past posed for such ambitions, Vucic just figured he needed a new set of clothes, seeing this as the best way to emerge from the dark where he had lived for the past two decades. Vucic now embodies the ideals of the October 5 revolution, and for some opponents this is hard to understand and to stomach. So inevitably there are questions about how honest Vucic's transformation is.
This question divides the so-called "second Serbia", or intellectuals who remember Vucic during the 1990s and who were actively opposing him during that period. Their vision of Serbia that would grow out of the October 5 revolution faded with the 2003 assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic. But, paradoxically, there is no politician in Serbia today that sounds and acts more like Zoran Djindjic than Vucic. And this is what many cannot fathom.
Some of these intellectuals have accepted that defeat; Vesna Pesic, a long-time opposition figure during the Milosevic years and then a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, is one of them. She claims that Vucic has given up his politics from the 1990s and she can't see any reason not to trust him. "The two main agendas of the Serbian government are to solve the Kosovo problem and the European road of Serbia - and [the Progressives] are dealing with it. Why can't [his critics] see what is going on from 2008 till today? The only nationalistic party with an extremist attitude in the parliament is the Democratic Party of Serbia - it's a small party. And the Serbian Radical Party didn't even [get into parliament at the last elections] - it's a marginal party and nobody follows their protests."
Pesic believes Serbia is now at a stage where nationalistic politics has been largely marginalised.
Vucic avoids speaking about his past life as a Serbian nationalist; instead, he talks as a citizen of Serbia, as in an article published in the daily newspaper Danas on the occasion of Victory in Europe Day on May 9. He noted that Serbian citizens (we) have "lived in the past" and "were expected to secure the borders we wanted, have wages like those who worked but for twice as much idleness, either expecting support from Mars or some other planet".
"We hit the ground and this free fall was painful, not only individually for each and every one of us, but for the entire people and the state as well," he continued. "The only good thing in all that is that we have, after 20 years, managed to realize, accept and admit our own mistakes, while we pragmatically and realistically try to repair the consequences of all the damaging things we left behind."
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